Angry Metal-FiAngry Metal-Fi is a series of articles that are cross posted on Angry Metal Guy and Metal-Fi as a collaborative effort to evangelize dynamics in metal.

By: Alex-Fi

Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that you’ve read all of our articles and are now a true believer: The overzealous use of dynamic range compression coupled with brickwall limiting yields lifeless, dull sounding records. But if this is indeed all true, then why does the industry continue to approve of (and even insist on) this insanity in the first place?

I think I’m asked this exact question no less than a dozen times a month in one form or another. And frankly, it’s not an easy question to answer. So in effort to aggregate all of these emails into one unified response (read: I’m lazy), today’s article will attempt to breakdown why artists and labels choose volume over fidelity. As you will learn, it’s not always as clear cut a decision as you’d like to believe.


Ambivalence

Very recently I approached an artist whose latest record I happen to think is stellar, but who had it unfortunately crushed within inches of its life – little to no bass, drums sound like tin cans, wall of sound gobbledygook, the usual. And during our conversation he presented an argument I’ve heard countless of times: One of his favorite bands of all time released a few not so great sounding records in their heyday, but these records are still revered and coveted by fans none the less. So as long as he does his job of writing high quality, compelling music, production doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.

And unfortunately, at least to some extent, he’s right.

In my interview with Colin Marston, he even admits it, “The current industry levels are stupid because they’re not about music or good sound, they’re about competitive marketing or more simply, getting your attention for the first two seconds of listening. But if a good recording gets a bad mastering job, it can often still sound good. Low dynamics mastering doesn’t necessarily prevent everything from sounding good at all.”

But here’s the thing, if you’re an artist, why settle for lowest common denominator production? Why not cater to the audience that does care and more often than not, will pay for it? Most fans will come along for the ride regardless. Moreover, even though a low dynamics record doesn’t ruin the music, I can assure you that a high dynamic one certainly improves consuming it. Moreover, most of those early-to-mid 90s records we all worship, are just oozing dynamics. Mayhem. Check. Darkthrone. Yup. Death. You betcha. Morbid Angel. Uh-hun. The list goes on and on.

Arrogance

Neil KernonSome artists think they know better than the engineers they work with. I once spoke with an artist who has had a lot of trouble with various engineers over the years, and in almost every situation it boiled down to the fact that his ears knew better than the engineer’s. I imagine this happens a lot though, and is probably why some albums sound so horrible even when a reputable engineer’s name is buried in the credits.

Truth be told, there is this pervasive misconception among artists and audiophiles alike that your ears are these finely tuned devices that can easily detect even the smallest of audible minutiae. Bad news, they can’t. More bad news, because of various technical and psychological factors like critical masking, equal loudness contours, and expectation bias to name but a few, two listening sessions can yield vastly different results. This is true regardless of how many records you’ve sold or how much money you’ve spent on your playback system. It takes a real expert with years of experience who knows how to mitigate these factors in order to use his or her ears effectively in the studio.

Economics

There is very little data supporting the assertion that louder records sell better than their dynamic counterparts, yet this myth still persists among artists and labels. Seriously, there are folks out there who actually believe if a record sounds louder, it will magically sell more copies.

Have any of you ever bought a single record because it sounded louder than another? I’ll wager not. The truth is volume plays almost no role in your music purchase decision making process, and this belief is more the stuff of urban legends than anything even remotely rooted in fact.

Ignorance

Believe it or not, a lot of artists really have not a clue about production. It’s true. I’ve had an artist explain to me that all CDs sound like crap, and that’s just an inherit limitations of the format itself. I’ve had an artist explain to me that due to Bandcamp’s FLAC encoder process unwanted artifacts occur, and that’s why their digital releases in general suck. Heck, here is a well-known columnist’s take from a very popular website on why compressed music makes sense – yeah, he has no idea what he is talking about.

Radical Media filming Metallica DocumentaryPart of the problem is in an ideal world, an artist or band shouldn’t have to know anything about production, especially if they are backed by a label that gives them a real recording budget. That’s what studios, engineers, and producers are for. Artists already have the most important and difficult job to begin with – to write and play compelling music.

Yet I still find it fascinating that an artist will spend a ginormous amount of personal time honing their craft and writing their little hearts out, only to have it destroyed by a few simple clicks in ProTools. But that is exactly what happens all the time. That’s why I do put some of the blame on mastering engineers who don’t at least present a more dynamic product as a viable option. By level matching the music for the artist against its louder, crappier sounding counterpart, the engineer can at least claim that they tried to do the right thing. Though I imagine it can be heart-breaking (not to mention a lot of extra work) to see an artist choose the DR4 master over the DR8 one.

Also bear in mind that because DAWs are much more affordable than they used to be, the barrier to entry is much lower when it comes to mastering your own stuff. But a lot of these folks have no idea what dynamic range is, hard vs soft knee compression, how to properly use parametric equalization, and so on and so forth. It takes a lot of time and a lot of mistakes before you get skilled enough to produce awesome sounding metal. Caveat emptor.

Inertia

One of the fundamental laws of physics also just so happens to apply to production as well. That’s why a successful band, even a mildly successful one, will usually stick to their guns and do what they’ve always done for their next big release. I mean if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Frankly, the whole music industry is in someways a victim of inertia, that’s why Napster stole their lunch and why there are still labels out there who only sell CDs. Right, I know, but change is hard, especially when for all practical purposes what you are currently doing is actually working (at least to some extent).

But if an old dog is actually looking to learn a few new tricks, adding dynamics back into the mix can really spice things up. A great example is the way Katatonia released an acoustic re-imaging of their last record. Yeah, it isn’t a dramatic shift on the TT, but it added a few extra points here and there and to my ears, really breathed new life into an established, albeit jaded formula.

Politics

MetalManiacs11-1998StudioYou’re an extreme metal artist and you enter the studio backed by a label that fronted you a few thousand dollars to get your stuff tracked and ready to go. You have a choice: Stand tall and tell the engineer, as well as your most generous benefactor, that you refuse to release your music unless a modicum of dynamics is kept, or just release another loud record since only a few crazy audiophiles will even take notice. What would you do?

You’re an extreme metal artist and you go into the studio and track everything before finally sitting down with the mastering engineer. You also happen to be on a label where all the other artists are mastering a certain way, each one sounding louder than the next. Some of them you even secretly idolize. Do you do the “right” thing (at least from a fidelity stand point), but risk criticism for sounding too weak compared to your label counterparts thereby potentially throwing away all the time, energy, and money spent over the last few months (some cases, few years) over a few points of dynamics, or go with the flow and release yet another loud, albeit acceptable sounding record? What would you do?

You’re a mastering engineer and a famous client shows up at your door and is about to release their next big hit. And guess what? They want you to master it. They already tracked everything and hand you a copy of the mix. Oh by the way, the whole band loves it. Oh by the way, the mix engineer is some big shot in the industry. The mix measures DR5. What would you do?

Suffice it say, choosing dynamics is not as easy as I often make it sound (pun intended).

Preference

Some people out there actually prefer their music highly compressed. They like that instant gratification you get when the music knocks their socks off for a split second, even at the sacrifice of fidelity. I mean let’s all be honest, generally speaking, we all want our metal to be loud. But I also know that the volume novelty wears off real fast, and in the long run, a record that sounds as good as it looks will make my daily rotation more often than one that is fatiguing to listen to.

Of course then there are artists, especially black metal types, who believe that in order to achieve their aesthetic goals they need to crush their music as much as possible. Of course that’s not true, but trying to convince them that you can have great production while still maintain that lo-fi charm is no easy task. Some artists just prefer the sound of crappy production and label it as “raw” or my favorite, “organic” (like my vegetables).

Finally, the truth is, a lot of folks and critics treat the metal and its production as one and the same. If the album gets their head moving, mission accomplished. And for those folks who live by that mantra, who am I to argue? I guess I just hold my favorite bands and engineers a bit more accountable when it comes to the sound department, but that’s just me.


Dan SwanoAs you can see, there are many reasons why a band will go down the Loudness War route by the time they get into the studio. So before you sit down and write that nastygram to your favorite artist or label about their craptastic sounding DR5 master (staring right at you Allegaeon), be aware that choosing dynamics can be a very difficult decision, and one that can have wide ranging ramifications.

Hopefully in time though, the industry as a whole will learn the error of their ways and create an environment that fosters and encourages artists to be more dynamic. Or at the bare minimum, allow their roster to pull a Swanö and use digital downloads as a mechanism to offer alternative, dynamic masters. But until then, we will just have to live with it.

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  • Kim Sørensen

    I’m pretty sure this misery won’t stopp but if there should be a chance some of the bigger bands must start putting the foot down… but damn the whole thing is so sad and pointless
    Music can sound so fantasticand larger than life and yet even the artist just butcher it so it just sound annoying

  • Mike Eckman

    I’ve read all of these Dynamic Range articles here with fascination, but perhaps its my 35 year old ears damaged by at least 25 years worth of concerts and heavy metal played at blistering volumes, but I still have yet to hear a clear example of where a dynamic recording was “better” than a compressed recording. I have a CD copy of Metallica’s Death Magnetic and I found a copy online of the supposed dynamic version from Guitar Hero. I listened to both one right after another, and other than the Guitar Hero one being quieter, I didn’t hear anything that made the “dynamic” one sound any better. I even tried to raise the volume on the GH version to match the CD recording, and once I did that, it sounded exactly the same to me. Is it truly that my ears are so trashed I can’t hear the difference? I want to, I just cant. I’ve had the same results when comparing a high (192kbps+) bitrate MP3 to a FLAC recording. I can’t hear a difference. So my question is, is there an example somewhere of the same song recorded both with a high and low DR that I could listen to that demonstrates the differences?

    • Mike, are you level matching with Soundcheck and/or ReplayGain? Seat of the pants stuff will yield mixed results.

      Torture Division’s High Dynamic EP vs it’s compressed counterpart. Can you give that a go and report back? There are links on Metal-Fi, AMG, and Google for the download (it’s free and completely legal).

      You must level match though for the differences to really shine!

      • Excentric_1307

        Another key factor to hearing a dynamic master as intended is to make sure you have the equipment to make the music shine as well; when my wife listens to a crushed master through her laptop, it actually sounds better than a dynamic master because the laptop speakers can’t produce the full range of sounds of a dynamic master. The system I use (and when I turn it up, she’s listening to it as well. And so are the neighbors. And their neighbors!) can really achieve some staggering differences when playing different masters against each other.

        • Dave

          You may be right at least to a degree. I could see some instances where people may prefer say a well produced DR6 master to something that’s EXTREMELY dynamic on the worst quality speakers imaginable. If it were a question of well produced DR6 vs. DR8 though, I would bet on DR8, even on laptop speakers. Same if it’s well produced DR6 vs. horribly produced DR4. DR6 can be pretty good or pretty bad, but never great. DR4 is just always bad, on everything.

          • Excentric_1307

            Agreed. There’s a limit to how far you can go even on bad speakers.

            As an aside, this year is the first that I’ve not purchased or even listened to new metal albums due to the smashing involved in mastering. And that’s really sad.

          • markus o

            very clever of you, I’d say…

    • SeventhSonOfA

      If you can’t hear the difference between the Death Magnetic CD and the Guitar Hero version, then your ears are shot, brother. Not being snarky, not trying to be a dick, but those two masters are night and day.

      • SeventhSonOfA

        Had you said you couldn’t hear the difference between, lets say. The original 1987 version of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son when level-matched to the 2002 remasters, ok, I can get that. But Death Magnetic is compressed so hard it actually clips and distorts.

      • markus o

        I think he was saying that – even if he could notice a difference – that difference didn’t make the hi-DR version any better than the regular one. that is and will always be a crap album by a crap band, however you re-master it.

    • Your limited hearing should have nothing to do with sensitivity to DRC.

    • Dave

      Mike, check out Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit – 1991 vs. 2011 (loudness war – gain matched) on YouTube for a quick and easy comparison. The 2011 version has completely sacrificed the kick drum and much of the cymbals at the altar of MOAR LOUD from the guitars.

      Another interesting video is Iron Maiden – Fighting the loudness war where you can hear sound quality going down as the years go by. Things start to get bad around ’92, which is about 5:40 into the video.

      • Mike Eckman

        Man, Im officially deaf. I can SEE the differences in the waveform, but I cannot hear a difference in either of the Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit or the Iron Maiden Loudness War videos on Youtube. I seriously watched these videos several times over and over and tried to hear a difference. I even closed my eyes hoping to trick my ears. Nope. Oh well. Im old. And yes, I still put two spaces at the end of a sentence! :)

        • Mike Eckman

          OKay, turns out I watched the wrong Iron Maiden one. The 10 minute video that shows samples from all their albums, it is noticeable. Except for me, I doesn’t start to get bad until Virtual XI.

          • Virtual XI and X Factor are both terribly produced records, that doesn’t help.

            Also, what kind of equipment are you using? Better equipment makes it more noticeable. I use monitor headphones, for example.

    • On top of everything that has been recommended, I would use a tool to do some double-blind testing, there was a foobar2000 plugin that will let you compare tracks and pick the one that you think it sounds better without any cue that could factor psychologically in your decisions (like knowing which one is the MP3 or the FLAC)

    • James Ingold

      Hey Mike, one important distinction that no one has mentioned in replying to you yet is the difference between dynamic compression and digital compression. When you were comparing the MP3 with the FLAC file, you were actually testing the difference in digital compression formats. Files like MP3’s algorithmically remove audio data in a way that attempts to make the least impact on the audio quality. Of course, at very low bitrates, it results I a thin and ‘tinny’ sound. The easiest way to hear the difference is to go to youtube and listen to part of a song at 1080p and part at 240 or 320 (when you change the video resolution, youtube also changes the audio streaming bitrate). Unless you’ve got some great headphones or speakers, it’s often difficult to tell a high quality MP3 from FLAC or similar lossless file.

  • Anthony Amoeba

    >mfw you have a picture of Ted Kirkpatrick
    >he actually gives a damn about dynamics

    This just helps argument, good job! (not sarcastic)

  • Muddy

    It’s funny you bring up Allegaeon. I thought I liked the music I was hearing in their advance videos, so I went and bought the CD. The compression/limiting on this sucker is so obvious. It sounds so awful I can barely listen to it. That album has gone on a back shelf, maybe I’ll come back to it some time. I also got the latest Dillinger Escape Plan which sounds pretty bad too. Please people, make your albums sound good. Please care about this. For your sake and the fans sake.

    • Muddy

      And while I’m pointing fingers here, Misery Index’s new album sounds like a big stinking pile of fly infested dog crap too.

    • Dave

      Yep. The new Allegaeon is one of the worst sounding records I’ve heard so far this year. Just a damn shame, their last few were not exactly all stars for sound quality, but they were at least listenable and enjoyable. This one is not.

  • RyanM1985

    Can you do a top 10 albums with the best production and a top 10 with the worst?

  • Ernesto Aimar

    I also feel like Mike in this one. Even when I do understand the whole concept of why a proper Dynamic Range is so important and why the loudness war has delivered poorly mastered releases, I still can’t feel the many differences I should be supposed to listen to.
    Plus, I can´t agree in the fact that crappy mastering makes bad albums. For example in the Iron Maiden Fighting the Loudness War video, it is quite obvious that “Killers” has more dynamics than “Brave New World”, still I preffer the latter a million times.
    I once asked which was the DR index for “Imaginations from the Other Side” from Blind Guardian, and someone answered me it was averaging DR5, which is not that good. Still, that album is one of my favorite records of all time and I still can´t find any flaw on it.
    Suidakra’s latest effort was considered here a mastering insult and that´s probably right. But to me the main problem with that album is that is extremely boring and repetitive…so wether the mastering is good or not, the core of the album ain’t good enough.
    What I’m trying to say is that both volume and/or mastering quality will always play a second role in my purchase options. As long as que quality of the compositions move me in any emotional way, I’ll go for it.
    At least for now. As Mike said, If I manage to fully appreciate the differences between great dynamics and crappy masterings (besides the noticeable volume differences), I should probably change my mind

    • Rötten Baldus Hode

      and 4 years later, an aswer… I agree with you with all that you said… until I changed my stereo. Could it be that? I do like brave new world a whole lot… but I now understand what is the damage done to it with the comrpession. By example, Blood brothers could have been EPIC! but it’s so loud all the time that there are no changes in emphasis, accentuation or volume through the song… making it flat and emotionless.. now. Before I never thought that way of that album. My new stereo destroyed the albums I like, by making others with better dymanics SHINE.

  • Realkman666

    And that’s why I don’t mind being the annoying cunt who just dismisses DR 5-6 albums. I’ll say it every time and you’ll find me boring every time, but if I won’t feel like listening to it, why should I buy it?

    • In certain cases there are things that are DR6 that seem to work. I think, for example, the last Turisas was an extremely well-produced DR6. I don’t think it’s fair to write everything off, but yeah it’s tough.

  • markus o

    in my opinion (that, as i’m perfectly aware of, counts more or less like a tiny pile of fly sh*t), you’re pushing your argument a bit too far. everyone, I think, loves his prog-jazz-avantgarde stuff as dynamic and subtle as technically possible. but, I’m sure many will agree, too much dynamic range would instantly kill 99% of death metal (as well as other kinds of metal). not because DM fans have childish tastes (like you seem to suggest under the “preference” voice), or because musicianship is so poor that you MUST bury it under meters of compression and brickwall limiting, but because, with a more-than subtle degree of compression stuff sounds more powerful. has more impact. and, in many musical scenarios, being overwelmed by machine gun drums, flaming chainsaw guitars and basslines that sound like giants steel pipes being rolled on a concrete floor matters much more than the ability to hear every single pick stroke on strings. many extremely dynamic old albums sound crap, when compared to more compressed, modern material. or at least I think, because my first thought, when listening to something, is not to run for my DR plugin. oh, just for honesty’s sake, I mostly listen to digitally compressed (meaning 320k MP3s) music, because i usually use my PC. both with AKG studio earphones or a set of decent 2.1 speakers. but I’ve also got a stereo set with a tube amp and a couple of VERY decent speakers. i’m into metal since the late 80s, I’m a musician (albeit mediocre), and I’m mostly able to discern between a good and a crap production… simply I often like my metal compressed and loud. and regard most audiophiles as a bunch of elitist guys who – at some point of their lives – stop caring at all about music, and fall in the pure realm of psycoacoustics. a crap album stays crap, even when listened on high grade vynil through diamond fiber cables. And, for example, I still have to hear better black metal than the stuff of the early 90s. If the new Alleaeon is unlistenable, please tell me something about Emperor’s “in the nightside eclipse” or Darkthrone’s “transylvanian hunger”! :)

  • Lenny Kinne

    Is it possible that keeping every instrument clearly audible is an even harder job when you master for low DRs? I’m really torn on this because

    a) I can understand the physics behind DR
    b) I can clearly hear the difference

    but

    No matter what I do, if I keep mastering by how fat stuff does sound, I always end up at ridiculously low DR. I don’t have the feeling though that anything gets “buried” under anything else, or blurred for that matter. Also, I clearly agree with markus o on the fact that getting smashed in the face by a sound is a very nice experience, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  • Rötten Baldus Hode

    It is actually interesting that realm of the DR. In my case, I gave a flying fuck about it because I did not even know it existed. I had LP’s stored and was listening mosly out of PC speakers… but in 2012 I started to buy bits and pieces of gear to enjoy what I had stored for years and the new good stuff that was coming out. I got a little stereo, then upgraded speakers and I thought I made something terrible… upgraded amp because maybe speakers vs. stereo were a mismatch… I went big on this and Music changed a whole lot… even more.

    The story is long, but I am re discovering all the music I’ve been listening for the last 25 years. But as for the DR rating on 6 and below… I really like a whole bunch of those records without knowing it. However… Now, I bounded to listen to them on headphones and everything is fine; as forplaying them on the stereo… they are unplayable on the new Amp! I can play around with the EQ to make it sound ok-ish, but definitely, after reading a lot noticed that what makes the huge difference is the DR, not that the stereo was terrible or unable to play metal.

    Truth is, with a decent to good stereo, the game changes. Highly dynamic recordings does not get highly benefited from a regular stereo, and even lesser from playing from poor MP3s players with volume normalization, or careless playing on streaming services (because normalization and remastered versions). But, I never thought good recorded albums would be such an amazing experience on a good stereo, and how disappointing is a bad recording… after like 20+ years of crappy everything…

    This to me means that records are engineered for bad to average sounding gear, which allows them to be more popular as most people uses whatever to listen to music (as I did for decades). Because yeah, I loved listening to let’s say the MP3 of “at the heart of winter” in my cellphone. However, I just can’t play that on the stereo… neither in vinyl. nor in CD. And oh boy how I wish it was backwards. But as for the early 90’s and mid 80’s extreme metal… I feel like if they were jamming in my living room… as it used to be when I was a kid listening to it on our parent’s good ol’ stereo system. And I thought it was because as a kid I had better imagination… no, NO! it was the recording + the stereo. All new recordings that I have auditioned with this new amp and feel lively feeling have in common a good DR. I hope this means DR is on its way back! because what it does is marvelous!

    Sooo… it also might be where and how are you playing your metal?